It was a beautiful night on the promenade. There was a breeze, cool and salty, bringing different smells from the vendors, popcorn and nuts and saltwater taffy all mixing together to create something so sweet it was nearly sickly. Cloying. Way above, a few of the brighter stars shone through. The rest were drowned out by the lights strung between the buildings, white lights with the occasional twinkling red or green or blue. Music came from a busker, soft violin rolling through the air.
The round man selling popcorn had a ridiculous mustache and he was scooping the seasoned kernels into a paper cup for a little family. Two mothers and two little boys, the youngest barely able to contain his excitement and bouncing in place. Not far down the brick lane a woman was sitting next to a table full of homemade jewelry, calling out to the couples as they passed. Across the way another woman sat at another table, this one empty save for the deck of cards she was casually shuffling. She didn’t seem to mind if anyone stopped or not.
When the air shifted in just the right way it carried the calliope music from the merry-go-round at the far end of the promenade. The lights flashed and reflected off everything, and the delighted screams of the young children on their plastic horses bounced off hard surfaces all the way down to the pier. Around the corner was an arcade lined with those cheating games. From the bench in the middle of the block the first half of the first game could be seen, the kind with the horses galloping across. Harsh buzzers sounded off every few minutes, followed by cheers and groans.
If anyone noticed Calvin sitting at that bench, head in his hands and hyperventilating, they pretended they didn’t. He’d stumbled up the entire way up the stairs and down the alley, needing open air. The little…whatever it was had become suffocating. The promenade, and its unrelenting normal nature, made things better. A little. Calvin would just sit here until dawn and if he did that the spell would be broken and everything would go back to the way it was. The way it was supposed to be.
Someone sat down next to him. Calvin didn’t have to look up to know it was Roo. Skinny. Smelling of leather. And he recognized his shoes. They sat together in silence for a few minutes, Calvin trying not to dry heave and Roo smoking one of his disgusting cigars.
“If it means anything,” Roo said, “I don’t agree with the way Polly went about that. Not how I would have done it.”
Calvin spat. “And how would you have done it?”
“I don’t rightly know,” Roo said. “But not like that.”
“Is there a better way to tell someone the world has changed?”
“There is. It just takes a while. And anyway, you’re looking at this all wrong, mate.”
Calvin rubbed his face with his hands and sat back. Once he was sure his stomach wasn’t going to give up the ghost he looked over at Roo. The man was looking at him. Waiting patiently.
“Okay, I give up,” Calvin said. “How should I be looking at it?”
“The world hasn’t changd. Just the way you perceive it. It’s like a filter’s been turned off, is all.”
Roo took what remained of his cigar and dropped it. As he stubbed it out with one foot he gestured up and down the promenade with both hands.
“Take all this. Looks normal, eh? Eh? But only if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Calvin glanced up one way, then the other, then made a long blink.
“I give up. What am I looking for?”
“Just look. Really look.”
With a sigh, Calvin went about trying to ‘really look,’ whatever that entailed. The lights above were just lights. The arcade game with the horses was just that. The merry-go-round-
The horses were alive. Not realizing he was doing it, Calvin rubbed at his eyes and looked again. No, definitely alive. Their tails were swishing back and forth, and their heads were looking this way and that. Nipping at each other. Looking up at the child riding them. Children who didn’t seem to notice any of it. Parents took pictures of their kids, and not of the horses below, despite the smiles they struck when they realized the camera was pointed at them.
There was an alley across from where he had been sitting that Calvin was sure hadn’t been there before. It was thin, and dark. Like the alley he had stumbled out of earlier. Would he turn and find that alley gone? Or would he ask the round man selling popcorn about the alleys and only get a confused look?
Waves of color were coming off the man playing the violin, so faint he wasn’t sure they were there even as he looked. They bled out into the air with the beat of the song, changing colors with the notes, spreading out down the promenade and floated away, up above.
The woman with the cards across the way was watching him now, still shuffling her cards. He thought they were playing cards, he was completely sure he had seen the usual blue pattern on the back. But now they were obviously not. Too big, too colorful, too different. Tarot cards.
Roo pulled a cigar out from his breast pocket and lit it with a flame that popped up from his thumb.
“People see what they expect to see,” he said after a puff. “The human mind is quite skilled at tricking itself. But, once just a bit of the thread unravels, just the tiniest bit, the whole piece of wool falls away. The world hasn’t changed, Calvin. You have.”